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Holy Hell! Utopia Parkway Turns 20

Holy Hell! Utopia Parkway Turns 20

Utopia Parkway paints a portrait of the landscape that surrounds New York City, from a moment in the late 20th century when things were still slightly innocent

Fountains of Wayne may go down in most people’s books as a one-hit wonder. “Stacy’s Mom,” the band’s 2003 hit (it reached #21 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was one of the early songs to be named “the Most Downloaded Song” on iTunes) was a surprise from the band’s third album—an album that came after the band had been dropped by Atlantic Records. The song, a nearly-too-clever tribute to The Cars featuring a narrator who has a hard-on for his friend’s mom (“Did your mom get back from her business trip / Is she there, or she tryin’ to give me the slip?”) felt like a guilty pleasure. As catchy as a winter flu, it made you feel a bit guilty for liking it so much (or for identifying with the narrator just a little)

But relegating songwriters Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger to that fate is unfair in every possible way. After meeting during their freshman year at little Williams College, Collingwood and Schlesinger created two ambitious early albums that had Fountains of Wayne (named after a lawn ornament outlet in suburban Northern New Jersey) touring with The Smashing Pumpkins, Sloan and The Lemonheads. The second album, 1999’s Utopia Parkway, is arguably the band’s best, chock-full of tuneful power pop gems rich in melody, clever lyrics, and genuine storytelling. The music sounds fresh 20 years later in large part because it already sounded timeless in 1999 as it channeled the best kind of classic rock from 20 and 30 years before it was made.

Fountain of Wayne’s eponymous debut from 1996 had two singles (“Radiation Vibe” and “Sink to the Bottom”) that performed well, and the vibe of the record was something special. Collingwood’s insinuating lead vocal—coy like Donald Fagen from Steely Dan but also refined like John Lennon’s cool Beatle vocals—combined beautifully with power-punky arrangements recorded for $5,000. The story goes that Collingwood and Schlesinger met in a New York bar, jotting down hundreds of silly song titles, then splitting up the titles and daring each other write the actual songs. In a week, they had an album marked by snarky, clever lyrics (“Leave the Biker” featured lines like “And I wonder if he ever has cried / Cause his kitten got run over and died” and “Please Don’t Rock Me Tonight” speaks for itself but also contains the gem “I didn’t mean to make the trendy guy mad / But the feeling I’m immersed in now / Can only turn a good party bad”) and strutting power pop that channels not just British Invasion rock but also the alternative rock that made part of the 1980s bearable.

The sophomore record, Utopia Parkway is better, smarter, more consistently catchy, and deeper. This time out, a few things were different, but the basic idea remained: great songs set as quick stories about suburban existence that are pop gems. The jokiness of Fountains of Wayne is dropped for more feeling and even a bit of pathos, but the cleverness of Collingwood and Schlesinger’s wordplay remains.

Also, Fountains of Wayne was more of a real band by 1999 with guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young (touring members who were not on the debut) giving Utopia Parkway a clearer sound. Schlesinger becomes the bassist in this version of the band but also adds critical keyboards: pop piano sounds that drive songs like the title track with punched eighth-note chords or looping synth lines that hook you on the song “Red Dragon Tattoo.” The production is more careful here, though never fussy. There are strategically placed handclaps on “Denise,” for example, and there is a dramatic “big beat” sound that is supplemented by organ and surf guitar sounds on “Valley of Malls.” This record sounds less like a goof but still, just enough, like a joy.

Thematically, Utopia Parkway paints a portrait of the landscape that surrounds New York City, from a moment in the late 20th century when things were still slightly innocent. Slightly. Like so much great rock music, the album deals with movement, but less the open road than the clogged New Jersey Turnpike or the crowded Long Island Expressway. “Laser Show” is a shit-kicking rocker about the suburban kids streaming into the city to the Hayden Planetarium so they can dig Pink Floyd and Metallica tunes set to lights. The traffic flows the other way on “Valley of Malls,” where it’s “bumper to bumper on the motorway” as folks drive home from the Everglades. “It Must Be Summer” is a punch-drunk rocker in which the narrator looks for a friend “on the Jersey Shore” and on “Long Island Sound”. In “Amity Gardens,” the narrator tells a friend that the trek home to a town in Connecticut in the Buick might not be worth it “If you knew now what you knew then.” The geography, bounded by sand and surf, seems filled with a yearning and frustration.

And it’s filled with girls and desire. “Red Dragon Tattoo” is in the voice of a foolish suitor who takes the N train to Coney Island to get inked in an attempt to woo a specific girl. “Will you stop pretending, I’ve never been born?” he asks. “Now how I look a little more like that guy from Korn / If you came a little bit closer, you’d see it isn’t painted on.” On the chorus, the narrator is “fit to be dyed”—a bit of wordplay you’d be lucky to hear on one song on a record by any band other than Fountains of Wayne. “Denise” is a slice of desire for a girl who lives in Queens, works at Liberty Travel (and “has a heart of gravel”). The guitar here scratches and then rips into glorious power chords as the vocals move to “Sha la la la, la la lah” and, after “Do you love me, Denise” a pop-glorious “Do you do, oh oh!.” “Lost in Space” describes a “pretty little thing” who is not from the planet. “And I can’t understand a word she says / And I don’t know why she’s such a mess / And I can’t get through no matter what I do / But I love her anyway.” The power-pop guitars drive it quickly forward, with an instrumental verse that combines guitar and synth orchestrally.

For all its punch, Utopia Parkway also features some great songs with a gentler feeling. The best is probably “Troubled Times,” with its strummed acoustic guitars and surging chorus harmonies. There is something about Collingwood’s vocal tone, bashful but insistent, that works with these lyrics about a romance that begins as just imagined, that falters, that perseveres. Like a lot of great pop songs, it is just vague enough to open itself up even as it pulls at your heart: “Maybe one day soon it will all come out / How you dream about each other sometimes / With the memory of how you once gave up / But you made it through the troubled times.” “Prom Theme” is a steady piano ballad that describes a fancy prom experience but begins with the confession about the lifetime that will follow. “We’ll pass out on the beach / Our keys just out of reach / And soon we’ll say goodbye / Then we’ll work until we die.”

“A Fine Day for a Parade” works from a slow, mellow throb, painting a portrait of an older woman in a suburban town who is getting through her problems and boredom on bourbon and mending curtains. It’s the kind of song that few if any other “rock” bands would dare to write. But Fountains of Wayne, when they aren’t joking around, are as serious as calculus.

Although Utopia Parkway didn’t sell enough copies to keep Fountains of Wayne with their record company, the passage of two decades make it clear that the album is a beauty. As songwriters, Schlesinger and Collingwood are more ambitious than, say, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, even as the band is as much fun to listen to as Weezer. In the end, however, Fountains of Wayne is also more sonically ambitious and diverse, making great pop music by churning through decades of rock (The Beach Boys, The Who, The Kinks, but also Elvis Costello, Journey, you name it) and repurposing it to tell stories that are unique to the band.

After Utopia Parkway and being dropped by Atlantic, Fountains of Wayne took a break. The third album, Welcome Interstate Managers” gave the band their hit as well as five or six other brilliant songs. The story is that success caused some personal problems, and 2007’s Traffic and Weather featured mainly songs by Schlesinger. One more album followed in 2011, Sky Full of Holes, and each one was superb and in the mold of Utopia Parkway: this is the music that short story writer Raymond Carver might have made if he were a pop-rock obsessed kid from the New York suburbs. The stories, many of which tug at your heart just the right amount, distinguish Fountains of Wayne from contemporaries like They Might Be Giants or Barenaked Ladies, and Utopia Parkway is the calling card I’d use to prove to you how affecting pure pop can really be.

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